(Adds details on plan, statement from former pardon attorney and ACLU; dateline)
By David Ingram and Bernard Vaughan
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday urged lawyers to help identify incarcerated low-level drug offenders who might be eligible for presidential clemency.
Citing a "crushing" prison population, Deputy Attorney General James Cole made the unusual announcement in a speech to the New York State Bar Association.
Candidates for clemency would include non-violent inmates who have clean prison records, do not present a threat to public safety, are facing excessive sentences and do not have "significant ties" to gangs or cartels, Cole said.
In a sign of changing U.S. views about long prison sentences, Obama in December commuted the sentences of eight people after deciding their crack cocaine offenses did not justify their long prison terms. Each had served more than 15 years in prison.
"It is the department's goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the president for clemency consideration," Cole said.
He asked that bar associations around the country recruit and train skilled lawyers to assist qualified inmates with petitions for sentence commutation. The Bureau of Prisons will also begin advising inmates about the opportunity, Cole said.
Cole said funds spent on prisons - $6.5 billion last year - could be better spent fighting financial fraud, drug cartels, public corruption and other serious crimes.
The federal prison population has increased by 800 percent in the last 30 years, to nearly 216,000 inmates, he said.
"If we don't find a solution to the federal prison population problem, public safety is going to suffer," Cole said.
The initiative comes roughly three years after President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which sharply reduced the difference between sentences for crimes committed by crack cocaine users, who tend to be black, and powder cocaine users, who tend to be white.
The U.S. Constitution gives the president power to grant "reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."
The Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney advises the president on the merits of specific cases.
Margaret Love, who was pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997 and now represents applicants for executive clemency, said it was "unprecedented" for the Justice Department to ask lawyers to help identify clemency candidates.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, praised the initiative.
"The Obama administration is taking an important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system," she said in a statement.
(Editing by Howard Goller, Noeleen Walder, Chizu Nomiyama, Meredith Mazzilli and Dan Grebler)